but that every word tell

I am not a grammar goddess, as is quite obvious from my blog, but I do my best to adhere to the few rules that rattle around in my head. I have a number of books on the subject on the bookshelf within closest reach of my chair, which also contains other useful reference texts such as as my obese, but beloved, dictionary, and thesaurus. The oldest of them, the first book on grammar I voluntarily bought, is still the one I check the most frequently: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. That slim volume contains a world of sense, and is written in such precise and clean prose that even a grammar knucklehead like me can comprehend it.

Before Christmas I heard a bit of buzz about a new book on the subject that was selling remarkably well. For a grammar book to make the best-sellers’ list must be like an unexpected lottery win for the publishers. After all, we are constantly being told by the press, the intelligentsia, and various other talking-heads, that our nations are undergoing a literary devolution.

The book was Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. I read some reviews, and leafed through the book in a shop, but wasn’t inclined to pay over the odds to buy a text whose author radiated a smug elitism over those she perceived as being pitiful due to their lack of ability at punctuation. If you’re going to write an amusing book on grammar and/or punctuation then I think a good approach is the one favoured by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, whose The Transitive Vampire, and The Well-Tempered Sentence, are warmly humourous and informative.

My main issue with Eats, Shoots & Leaves is that it is mean-spirited. I do not buy books on punctuation or grammar so I can feel superior at how clever I am that I know the proper use of an apostrophe in all situations. I buy a book on grammar because it will help me understand the rules of the language so I can be clear and concise in my writing. If it can teach me the rules in a light-hearted manner then so much the better. Learning the essentials of the English language doesn’t have to be painful, or patronising.

It was with some amusement, therefore, that I read the following review of the recently-released American edition of the book in The New Yorker. It appears that Lynne Truss is not as perfect a grammarian as you would expect from someone who wrote a book on the subject. Louis Menand, the author of the column, carefully details Truss’s eclectic use of grammar in her book with stylish efficiency. He does not have to have to be snide about it, because he has class. Truss’s mistakes make it glaringly obvious that she can’t afford to lord it over anyone about punctuation. Especially not Americans, who have different rules for punctuation–as they are entitled to do so since they are consistent about it.

Menand’s column continues with excellent insights into the “voice” of a writer. I particularly liked this quote:

Writers are not mere copyists of language; they are polishers, embellishers, perfecters. They spend hours getting the timing right—so that what they write sounds completely unrehearsed.

He makes the distinction between the technology of the language–punctuation–and its application to create interesting prose.

Finally, I’ll finish with a quote from The Elements of Style. I wish I could burn this into my mind so I could always follow its simple advice:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.